Stephen Jones

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 May, 2009, 12:00am

WHY HATS? When I arrived at St Martins [School of Art, as it was formerly known, in London] I didn't know how to sew; I had never even threaded a needle. Our tailoring tutor offered to help and I went to work at Lachasse, the small couture establishment he owned, during my summer holidays. Next to his workroom was the millinery room and that seemed the most fascinating place in the world. I noticed a big pot of glue and thought: 'oh ... hats are glued together, not sewn, thank heavens.' I didn't know that hats are much more about hand sewing than dresses. I learned millinery techniques there from the ever-patient [Lachasse milliner] Shirley Hex. She was surprised someone wanted to go into millinery: nobody was going into it at the time - it was the kiss of death for fashion. That really changed for the avant garde; with Vivienne Westwood's Mud collection of hats and the appearance of [Diana,] Princess of Wales, a young glamorous woman who looked sensational in hats. One of my career highlights was making hats for her.

PUNK TO BLITZ KID On my first day of college, I walked into class dressed in black, including a beret and chipped nail polish - my Left Bank punk beat-poet look - and found myself aligned with four punks in the corner of a room full of Home Counties sophisticates. When I left college, in 1979, I worked from a squat on [London's] Warren Street with several people who went on to become famous, such as [film director] John Maybury and stylist Kim Bowen and was making hats for friends like [pop group] Spandau Ballet. [Singer Boy] George lived there for a while and my big break came when he asked me to be in [Culture Club's] video for Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? I wore a second-hand American zoot suit and fez. Jean Paul Gaultier saw me and asked if I would model in his first menswear show, wearing my fez. He then invited me to work on his womenswear show and design fezzes for women.

THE COLLABORATOR I first met John Galliano at the notorious Blitz club in the 1980s. He asked me to make hats for his degree show and I said: 'Not on your life, dearie.' Funnily enough it was my former assistant, Sybille de Saint Phalle [niece of sculptress Niki de Saint Phalle], who then went to work for him, who got us to work together. I have an atelier at Christian Dior and am a good client of the Eurostar [the train connecting London and Paris] - or rather, Mr Arnault [the chairman of LVMH and owner of Dior] is. I now also work with Rei Kawakubo - whom I met on my way to Japan in the duty-free at Anchorage airport in the early 80s - doing hats for Comme des Garcons. My perfume is a collaboration with her Dover Street Market shop. I also design hats for Giles, Marc Jacobs and L'Wren Scott.

I opened my first shop in Covent Garden in 1981. Working with designers is very similar to working with a client who has saved up her money for a hat or a regular client who says: 'You know what suits me but I want it in purple this year.' It is about being a good listener and understanding what they want the hat for. L'Wren Scott saying she wants something sleek and modern because her clients, like [actress] Nicole Kidman, are comfortable in hats like that is no different to a client wanting a hat for the races.

FINDING INSPIRATION I went to public school in Liverpool, which was all Latin, Greek and rugby - and no art. I taught myself art A-level. I would make trips to the city's dramatic modernist Roman Catholic cathedral, known locally as Paddy's Wigwam. Its amazing space-age design has had an enormous influence on me. A grand cathedral or a small wooden outhouse can inspire me. Architecture is all like big hats, really.

The V&A [Museum in London] bought one of my hats in 1982 and, since then, one of my greatest treats has been going through their collections of Balenciaga, Dior, Simone Mirman [who made hats for Britain's Queen Elizabeth] and all the millinery maestros. The archive of my other favourite, Elsa Schiaparelli, however, is in Philadelphia, [in the United States].

The V&A approached me to curate an exhibition on hats and I started my research in their archives in April 2007. The highs were finding Princess Eugenie's bonnet, Prince Albert's top hat, a Tudor beret and an Anubis mask from 3000BC - displayed next to my own Anubis mask for Dior in 2004. Cecil Beaton curated the first fashion exhibition at the museum in 1971 and it was L'Wren Scott who gave me the lead on where I would find his hats from [the 1964 film] My Fair Lady - in the Warner Bros archive. There, I found Audrey Hepburn's Beaton-designed straw cloche squished in the bottom of a box and underneath it was Beaton's drawing [of it].

Comparing my own hats to those in the V&A archives, I did not realise the giant scale of Victorian hats, [some had] 2 foot-wide bows. [Or] how different my rendition of a 1940s hat is from the real thing.

FREE TIME For the last two years I have been putting 25 hours a week into research on top of my normal working week. Luckily my partner, Craig, works with me. When I get home at 10pm, the last thing I want to do is cook. I do cook, however. I love table-setting for dinners, so although I've poisoned everybody, at least they are sitting pretty.

Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones is on display at the V&A Museum ( uk) in London, Britain, until May 31.